“I coulda been a contender,” Marlon Brando famously announced from the back seat of a cab in the Oscar-winning 1954 film, On the Waterfront. Actually, he was a contender, a big one, in real life, perhaps one of the best movie actors ever, winning Oscars for his performances and accolades from critics and other actors for his talent. Director Martin Scorsese said of him, “He is the marker. There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando.’ ”
Before Brando, there had been John Barrymore and Laurence Olivier. After Brando, there were wannabe Brandos. He was a prime exemplar of method acting, an approach that emphasized an internal emotional identification with the character the actor was playing, rather than just producing the outward signs of emotion like tears or smiles. It was acting from the inside out, as Tennessee Williams put it. It won Marlon Brando eight Academy Award nominations and two Best Actor Oscars, one for On the Waterfront and another for The Godfather.
Mainly and famously taught by Lee Strasberg at his New York City Actors Studio for some 40 years, method acting was derived from the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski, who worked closely with playwright Anton Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theater. When Stanislavski brought his troupe to Manhattan in 1923, Strasberg, preparing to be an actor, was mesmerized and went to study with one of Stanislavski’s students. Later teaching at Actors Studio, Strasberg became known for what he now called method acting and he trained many successful actors, including Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, and James Dean in the technique.
Brando, however, learned method acting from one of Strasberg’s students who had broken away from his approach. His teacher was Stella Adler, who advocated an inner emotional identity based on imagination and empathy with the character rather than memory of personal experience as Strasberg had taught. Adler, who went to Paris to study with Stanislavski himself, trained Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel, and Elaine Stritch and many others as well as Brando at her Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York City.
Brando became the prime exemplar of method acting in a career that included both stage and screen. He got his start in a tough venue, the Broadway stage, and went on to star in some 40 films and a half-dozen Broadway plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947–1949. Critics had already named him Broadway’s most promising actor in the 1946 play, Truckline Café. Written by Maxwell Anderson and produced by Elia Kazan, the play was a flop but Brando, who had been trying out his method acting in summer stock on Long Island, now became the man to watch. He reportedly prepared for the intense scenes in the play by running up and down a flight of stairs to work up a frenzied demeanor before he went on stage. He would triumph on Broadway the following year in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando had wanted the part of Stanley Kowalski so badly he said he drove from New York City to Provincetown on Cape Cod to audition for it. Author Tennessee Williams said he knew the minute Brando walked in the door that he was the one for the part.
Streetcar ran for two acclaimed years on Broadway and Brando began to attract Hollywood’s attention. In 1950, he made his screen debut in The Men as a paraplegic veteran, a role he prepared for by going to live in an army hospital for a month beforehand. But it was in the screen version of A Streetcar Named Desire in l951 that Brando cemented his reputation as an actor. The movie, also starring Vivian Leigh, won three of the four Oscars it had been nominated for, though Brando, nominated for Best Actor, would have to wait three more years to win, in On the Waterfront.
Nonetheless, his film career took off in the 1950s as he played memorable characters like Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata, and Terry Malloy, a dockworker in On the Water-front. The black leather motorcycle jacket, sweaty T-shirt, and tight-fitting jeans he wore in that film and others became a trademark of Brando’s persona as a tough, macho, openly sexual kind of actor at a time when his brand of rebellion, like that of his fellow student James Dean, was resonating in American culture. His was “the Brando school of anti-glamour,” as the New York Times labeled it in his obituary in 2004. Brando is portrayed in Madam Tussaud’s wax museum on his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle, ridden in his 1953 film, The Wild One, the movie that film star Jack Nicholson said made him want to become an actor.
Noted film critic Pauline Kael called Brando our greatest actor. She said his appeal was that he tended to upset audiences and complicate people’s emotional response. As Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, for example, he made fun of Blanche Du Bois’s demure (but false) gentility, something that seemed out of key emotionally but turned out to be highly relevant to the play. Brando was able to infuse his tough-guy roles with a soft-sided intuitiveness that also confused audiences. He seemed to mumble his lines, but audiences never complained. Theater critic Harold Clurman remarked that Brando’s own intense concentration on stage made the audience focus on him.
Certainly Brando thoroughly inhabited his roles as a method actor. His 1972 portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, which won him his second Best Actor Oscar, gives the Mafia don a deeper side, showing not just his ruthlessness but his inner conflicts. By this time, Brando himself was already regarded as a difficult and conflicted man, and the fact that he refused to accept the Oscar he won for The Godfather was indicative of the direction he was going. Saying that he could not accept the award “because of the way American Indians are treated by Hollywood,” a message delivered at the Academy Awards by the American Indian actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, whom he had sent in his place, reaffirmed Brando’s passion for social causes he had exhibited all through his career, including his support of the civil rights movement.
His career began to falter at the end of the 1950s and through the 1960s, though he continued to take on film roles. Partly this career slowdown was a result of his reputation for being difficult to work with, but he was also taking parts for which he was miscast, like the singing gambler Sky Masterson in the musical, Guys and Dolls. He played army officers in Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, and Reflections in a Golden Eye, among other films, some, outright commercial failures. Hoping to revive interest in his career, Brando also directed his first film in 1961, One-Eyed Jacks, starring himself. In 1962, Brando starred in Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever but a disaster at the box office. Other starring roles in 1960s films included The Ugly American (1963), Countess from Hong Kong (1967), and Burn! in 1969, but it took Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972 to give Brando a role he could excel in. Coppola was so intent on getting Brando for the part of Don Corelone and afraid of refusal that he invited him first just to do a “makeup test.” Stuffing tissues in his cheeks and affecting a raspy voice, Brando astonished the director by looking and acting the part so well. He continued to do his own makeup throughout the filming.
He gave a memorable performance in his next film, Last Tango in Paris in 1973, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, for which the academy once again nominated him for Best Actor despite the film’s X rating. In 1978, he earned $3.7 million for two weeks’ work playing Superman’s father Jor-El in Superman. As he said of Hollywood, “The only reason I’m here is that I don’t yet have the moral courage to turn down the money.”
Brando racked up another star performance in Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, a reworking of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, as a Vietnam War story, with Brando as a Green Beret Colonel Kurtz. He had brought himself back as a star in the public eye but at the same time was becoming more and more reclusive, retreating into his private world. He gained weight, ballooning to 300 pounds, and was alternately living on an island he bought in Tahiti and living at his mansion on Mulholland Drive in Hollywood Hills. He married and divorced three wives and struggled with the 11 children People magazine estimated he had (five by his wives, three by his housekeeper, three from affairs with other women).
He had married his first wife, Anna Kashfi, in 1957, but they were divorced after the birth of a son, Christian Brando, in 1958. He married Mexican-American actress Movita Castaneda in 1960. They had two children, Miko and Rebecca, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1962. That same year he married his third wife, the 20-year-old Tahitian actress, Tarita Teriipia, whom he had met when they were both filming Mutiny on the Bounty. They had two children, Cheyenne and Simon, but were divorced in 1972. By 1990, Brando’s eldest son Christian was making headlines for shooting and killing a prominent Tahitian banker’s son who he said was abusing his half sister, Cheyenne Brando. Christian served nearly five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Testifying at his son’s trial, Brando said, “I know I could have done better” raising his children. Cheyenne, often in treatment for depression, hanged herself in 1995.
Perhaps Brando’s dysfunctional family and marriage problems reflected the same childhood emotional conflicts he said he drew on for his acting. The youngest of three children, he was born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in a family with an alcoholic father, Marlon Brando Sr., a manufacturer, and an alcoholic mother, Dorothy, who aspired to be an actress and possibly inspired her son. On his mother’s side, there was Irish ancestry; on his father’s side was a German ancestor who had emigrated to New Amsterdam (New York City) in the 17th century. Brando’s parents separated when he was 11 years old, and his mother took him and his two older sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, to live with her mother in Santa Ana, California. Two years later in 1937, the family was back together and living in Libertyville, Illinois, north of Chicago.
In his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando, who was nicknamed Bud, wrote that his father never had anything good to say about his son: “I was his namesake, but nothing I did ever pleased or interested him.... He enjoyed telling me I couldn’t do anything right.” “I suppose the story of my life is a search for love,” he wrote. “But more than that, I have been looking for a way to repair myself from the damages I suffered early on.” He was a rebel from the start—he allegedly once rode his motorcycle in the halls of Libertyville High School—and his father tried to control him by sending him to military school, but he was expelled in his senior year for smoking and insubordination. The school invited him to return the next year but he refused. Brando later said that he was embarrassed by the lack of a high school diploma.
Out of school, he took a job his father found for him digging ditches, then tried to join the army but was turned down because of a bad knee from a football injury. Brando, now 19, took off for New York City in 1943, where his sisters, in search of careers in acting and the arts, were already living. He enrolled at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, making his stage debut—playing Jesus—in a 1944 production, Hannele.
For 60 years after, Marlon Brando was to be a mesmerizing presence in American theater and film, on and off the stage. Though he announced his retirement in 1980, he went on to act in eight more films and a music video with Michael Jackson whom he befriended and visited at Neverland Ranch several times. Brando was working on a script for a documentary about his life when, at the age of 80, he died of pulmonary fibrosis on July 1, 2004, at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. His ashes were scattered partly in Tahiti and Death Valley.
Brando, Marlon. Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Random House, 1994.
Capote, Truman. “The Duke in His Domain.” The New Yorker, November 9, 1957. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1957/11/09/1957_11_09_053_TNY_CARDS_000252812 .
Kael, Pauline. For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1994.
Lyman, Rick. “Marlon Brando, Oscar-Winning Actor, Is Dead at 80.” The New York Times, July 2, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/02/movies/02CND-BRANDO.html
Schickel, Richard. Brando: A Life in Our Times. New York: Atheneum, 1991.